THE SLAVES WHO BUILT D.C.
At Capitol, slavery’s story turns full circle
BY Michael Kranish / December 28, 2008
Washington – When Barack Obama takes the oath of office at the US
Capitol, the first African-American to become president will be
standing amid stonework laid by slaves more than two centuries ago. He
will appear before a crowd massed on the Mall, where slaves were once
held in pens, ready for auction. He will end his inauguration route at
the White House, where the foundations were laid by slaves, and where
eight presidents held blacks as their human property.
At nearly every turn of Obama’s march to history, the thread that
deeply intertwines the founding of the nation with its great stain,
slavery, will be evident. Yet for all the attention on Obama’s racial
breakthrough, the full story of slavery in the nation’s capital
remains beneath the surface.
While the Lincoln Memorial on the far end of the Mall draws attention
to the fight to end slavery, there is no memorial at the spot near the
Capitol where slaves were once kept and sold in a three-story building
called the Yellow House. “Many people come down to the National Mall
and never realize that they are walking on the site of the slave
markets,” said Jesse J. Holland, author of the recent book, “Black Men
Built the Capitol.” Now, with Obama’s inauguration, historians are
hoping that the role of slaves in the history of building Washington
will become more widely recognized.
Obama is the son of a black African father and a white Kansan mother,
while his wife, Michelle, has a direct connection to America’s history
of enslavement, as Obama noted during the presidential campaign,
saying the next first lady “carries within her the blood of slaves and
slave owners.” Her great-great grandfather, on her father’s side, was
born into slavery and is believed to have lived in a small cabin at a
coastal South Carolina rice plantation.
Thus, a story that begins with slavery comes full circle with the
arrival of the Obamas. “It is an affirmation of the whole democratic
ideal in American history,” said historian William Seale, author of
“The President’s House.”
It was in the early 1790s that the government of the United States,
founded on the notion that “all men are created equal,” began to pay
slaveholders for the work of their slaves on both the Capitol and the
White House. “Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset
– particularly the Negroes,” the commission that oversaw construction
of the Capitol instructed a supervisor, according to documents in a
recently compiled congressional report. From 1795 to 1801, there were
385 payments for what was called “Negro hire,” referring to the hiring
of slaves from their masters to help build the Capitol.
From quarrying sandstone to sawing giant logs, the slaves gradually
shaped the Capitol’s foundation. While the building has been
reconstructed and expanded many times over the years, the stonework
laid by slave labor can still be seen at the west elevation of the old
North Wing, near where Obama will take the oath of office. Relatively
little is known about the slaves who helped build the Capitol, but pay
records do provide some of their names, including Gerrard, who was
leased for $13, and Will, who was leased for $12.91. One record notes
that “Caleb Varnal’s Negro Sawyer” was leased for $20.33 on July 6,
1795. The documents don’t specify the duration of the slaves’ service.
Overlooking the inaugural scene will be the Statue of Freedom, the
figure that stands grandly atop the Capitol dome. Yet, as documented
in a congressional report, it was a slave named Phillip Reid who
played a crucial role in turning a plaster cast into the statue. It is
“one of the great ironies in the Capitol’s history,” the report says,
that the statue was made possible by “a workman helping to cast a
noble allegorical representation of American freedom when he himself
was not free.” Reid, who had been purchased for $1,200, later did
become free and may have seen the statue hoisted atop the dome.
Similarly, the President’s House, as the White House was first known,
was constructed with significant help from slave labor, as well as
free blacks and whites. Slaves lived in huts amid a cacophony of brick
kilns and sawing operations, probably on the site of what is now
Lafayette Park. One slave, George, was owned by James Claggett and
leased to the federal government for five months, according to a pay
stub recently put on display by the National Archives. The document,
in elegant script, says that “the commissioners of the Federal
District” paid Claggett “for hire of Negro George,” for “working at
the President’s House.”
The construction of the President’s House began in 1792, with slaves
often toiling “seven days a week during the high construction summer
months alongside white workers and artisans,” according to a history
compiled by the White House Historical Association. An estimated 120
slaves helped dig the foundation of the White House and brought
stonework to the site. Some of the stonework can still be seen in the
exterior of the original, central portion of the building.
The first president to move into the mansion, John Adams of
Massachusetts, was antislavery. But his successor, Thomas Jefferson,
at various times brought a number of slaves to live with him in the
White House. The other presidents who owned slaves while living in the
White House were James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John
Tyler, William Henry Harrison, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor,
according to the historian Seale.
Part of the history of slaves who lived in the White House is
preserved in the thin but remarkable memoir of Paul Jennings, who was
owned by Madison and published a volume titled, “A Colored Man’s
Reminiscences of James Madison.” “When Mr. Madison was chosen
President, we came on and moved into the White House,” Jennings wrote.
“The east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not
paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud or dust.
The city was a dreary place.”
Jennings recalled how he set up a table at the White House with “ale,
cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers,” when a free black
raced up and announced that British invaders were on their way into
the city. “Clear out, clear out!” the man yelled. The Madison family
and Jennings fled just before the arrival of the British, who “ate up
the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the
President’s party,” Jennings wrote.
After Madison died, Jennings was able to buy his freedom from Dolley
Madison, who later became relatively destitute for a time. Jennings,
hearing of the plight of Mrs. Madison, wrote that he “occasionally
gave her small sums from own pocket, though I had years before bought
my freedom of her.”
Now, exactly two centuries after Madison became president and brought
slaves with him to the White House, Barack and Michelle Obama will
move into the home.
A previous president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, signed the
Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Asked to explain his
decision, Lincoln sat in his White House office, in what is now known
as the Lincoln Bedroom, and took out a piece of Executive Mansion
stationary. “If slavery is not wrong,” Lincoln wrote, “nothing is
BLACK MEN BUILT THE CAPITOL
Insights on Slavery, the Capitol, and Obama’s Inauguration /
January 16, 2009
JESSE J. HOLLAND: “My name is Jesse J. Holland. I wrote the book
“Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African-American History in
and Around Washington, D.C.” One of the things that I found was that
actual African-American slaves were used in the construction of the
U.S. Capitol and the White House. Out of just about the 600 or so
people who worked on the Capitol, maybe about 400 were African-
So, they would bring in all these slaves from these plantations around
Washington, D.C. And the area where Barack Obama is going to take his
oath of office, right in front of that, there will be hundreds of
thousands of people sitting in chairs. That area used to be a tent
city for these slaves and workers. On Inauguration Day, that area will
be filled with dignitaries. It will be filled with politicians. But,
on that land where they’re sitting, African-American slaves actually
used to live while they worked on the Capitol.
The Statue of Freedom was created by an American art student named
Thomas Crawford. He actually won the competition to decide which
statue would crown the Capitol. He put together a statue of a woman.
And, on top of the statue, he put a liberty cap, which is a small hat.
The person in charge of the Capitol construction vetoed the whole
project. The person in charge was Jefferson Davis. And, when he saw
the picture of the Statue of Freedom, he noticed the cap that was on
top of the statue. And, being a student of Roman history, Jefferson
Davis knew that the only people in Roman history who wore liberty caps
were freed slaves.
Well, Jefferson Davis, who goes on to be the president of the
Confederacy, says, there’s no way he’s going to allow them to put a
statue of a freed slave on top of the Capitol. So, he tells Thomas
Crawford that, you either change the statue, or we’re going the
commission to someone else.
Now, like I said, Crawford was an art student. Art students always
need money. So, instead of changing the statue, what Thomas Crawford
did was, he took the liberty cap off, and he put an American eagle
helmet on. So, most people look at the Statue of Freedom now and they
think, this is the statue of an American Indian on top of the Capitol.
No, it’s not. It’s actually a statue of a freed slave with an American
eagle helmet on top.
D.C. had ‘robust’ slave trade
Slaves also helped construct the White House from the very beginning.
Pierre L’Enfant, the person who designed Washington, D.C., contracted
with slave owners to use their slaves to dig the foundation of the
White House. James Hoban, the architect of the White House, actually
brought some of his own personal slaves up to Washington, D.C., from
South Carolina to work on the White House.
What a lot of people don’t know about the National Mall, Capitol,
Supreme Court area is that African-American slaves were held in
bondage in slave jails on some of these sites. Here, on the site of
the Supreme Court, was a building that was called the Old Brick
Capitol. That’s the building that Congress used after the Capitol was
burned in the war of 1812.
Well, the slave market was so robust in the District of Columbia that
slave owners ran out of space to hold their slaves. So, they would
rent public jail space to use for storage for African-American slaves.
And one of the places they did this was here, at the Old Brick
Capitol, on the site of where the Supreme Court is right now. That
also happened on the National Mall in places like Robey’s Tavern,
which sits in between the Department of Education and the Smithsonian
Air & Space Museum is today, and also on the site of the National
White House used slave labor
There were large numbers of slaves in Washington, D.C., simply because
it was such a hub for travel. And, especially with Virginia being
right across the river, Washington, D.C. and the National Mall became
a natural point for people to bring slaves for sale. But very few
people took the time to actually record what the day-to-day lives of
African-American slaves were in Washington, D.C.
Some of the slaves who worked in the White House, we know that they
got to dress in fine clothes. We know that they were taught French
cuisine. But we also know that they must have not loved their life,
because we have records of several slaves who attempted to escape from
the work areas at the Capitol and at the White House.
Many unaware of D.C. slave history
They were still enslaved, and they still wanted to be free. That
history, the history of slavery in Washington, D.C., isn’t always
talked about. That’s one of the things that I hope that people can
take away from my book. They can look at it and say, this is a part of
that history that we don’t know, that we should actually take time to
go back and look at.
It closes a circle in American history to have an African-American
taking the oath of office, and becoming the most powerful person in
the United States, and yet still live in a building that was built by
some of the least powerful people in the United States, African-
American slaves. It shows the progress that we have made as a
Pennsylvania Avenue paved with pain, progress
BY Faye Fiore / January 19, 2009
When Barack Obama takes his triumphant ride along Pennsylvania
Avenue Tuesday, he will retrace the path of Ku Klux Klan marches and
roll past the ghosts of hotels and movie theaters that used to turn
away people like him.
This historic stretch, book-ended by the Capitol on one end and the
White House on the other, has witnessed many of the milestones that
made an Obama presidency possible. The Emancipation Proclamation and
the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were signed here. But it’s doubtful that
even a Harvard-educated wonder can get his arms around the scope of
the civil-rights drama that has played out on this 1.2-mile slice of
There are places more famous for their scars — Selma, Birmingham —
but none captures the sweep of the story the way Pennsylvania Avenue
does, where laws were passed to enslave people and laws were passed to
free them, and at least a dozen of Obama’s predecessors would sooner
have considered him a piece of property than a peer.
Nearly every president has made this ceremonial trek since Thomas
Jefferson did it on horseback. But never has the setting been as
connected to the nation’s shame as much as its glory. “That
juxtaposition is the way I always think of Pennsylvania Avenue — a
place of great possibility and of great evil,” said Lonnie Bunch,
director of the National Museum of African American History and
Culture. “It is a mirror of change in America.”
Obama and his family will ride up the promenade in an armored 2009
black Cadillac limo after he takes the oath of office on Capitol steps
built by slaves. At 3rd Street, the motorcade will pass what used to
be the St. Charles Hotel, a popular stop in the early 1800s where
slaves were kept in underground cells while their owners enjoyed the
luxuries upstairs; reimbursement was guaranteed if any escaped. “That
hotel became a favorite of black patrons after the Civil War,” said
Charles Cobb, an author and professor of Africana studies at Brown
At 4th Street, a block from the hotel that made sure no slave escaped,
the new president will pass what used to be the American Colonization
Society Hall, founded in 1816 to return emancipated blacks to Africa,
an effort fueled in part by whites who believed there was no place in
America for a free black community.
Tension between races was inborn for a democracy founded on a
contradiction — 12 of the early presidents were slave holders, eight
while in the White House. From the start, the heart of the nation’s
capital — a broad avenue designed by Pierre L’Enfant that was a dusty
mess until it became the town’s first paved street — was a place of
mixed signals. Some freed blacks operated successful businesses while
their brethren continued to be sold off in chains.
While in the White House, President Jackson kept 150 house and field
slaves back on his Tennessee farm. It was under his nose one night in
1835, at 6th and Pennsylvania, that a white mob ransacked the
Epicurean Eating House and tried to lynch its black owner, a man named
Today, just a few doors down, an elegant pink building with twin
spires stands as a monument to the civil-rights struggle: The National
Council of Negro Women headquarters, purchased with the help of Oprah
Winfrey six years ago, is the only black-owned property on this famous
Inside, Dorothy Height, 96, a lifelong activist and president emeritus
of the civil-rights advocacy group, keeps an office. “No inaugurated
president will leave the Capitol to go to his house without passing
our house,” she likes to say. Known for her trademark hats — one day
last week ti was dusty blue with a big rhinestone-studded bow — she
was preparing to attend a swearing-in ceremony she did not think she
would live to see.
“Barack Obama presents a strong symbol of what we have achieved under
the hardest conditions,” said Height, who won a scholarship to Barnard
College as a young woman but was denied admission because of her skin
color. The symbolism is even bolder considering the building is steps
from 7th and Pennsylvania, where a teeming market of slaves, penned up
in filth and misery awaiting sale, was a lucrative enterprise.
Obama will be halfway to the White House when he passes it. There is
little to mark that it even existed. But, according to Bunch, a
visiting British writer once noted that the business going on in the
Capitol was drowned out by the anguished wails of families being
separated and sold. “We forget, but slavery was so embedded into the
American system, it shouldn’t be a surprise that slaves were traded
within the shadow of the Capitol,” Bunch explained.
Slavery was outlawed by 1865, but the inequality persisted. Blacks
were barred from jobs, hotel rooms, toilets and restaurant counters.
Pennsylvania Avenue led the nation in a dance: two steps forward and
one step back. Franklin Roosevelt opened the war-industry jobs to
blacks after he was threatened with a massive march on Washington.
Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal workplace to appease his
And somewhere along this street, a sailor named Sam Harmon, stationed
in Virginia during World War II, was denied admittance to a movie
theater when the clerk saw the hand that reached for the ticket was
black. He walked the streets that night in tears. “As you move into
the ’50s and ’60s, Pennsylvania Avenue is reflective of a segregated
America,” Cobb said. “Black people cooked in the restaurants that
served the capital but couldn’t eat in them.”
For nearly 100 years after slavery was outlawed, Pennsylvania Avenue
did little to advance justice. Then in 1964, President Johnson signed
the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination in hotels,
restaurants and department stores. Martin Luther King Jr. stood over
his shoulder at the White House. Four years later, smoke could be seen
rising from Pennsylvania at 7th Street when riots broke out as word
reached black neighborhoods north of downtown that King had been
At 10th Street, Obama will pass within a block of Ford’s Theater,
where Lincoln was shot by actor and Confederate sympathizer John
Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. As if in a flurry to honor his legacy,
Congress would adopt the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments outlawing
slavery, making former slaves citizens and giving black men the right
to vote. One result: Black businessman James Wormley opened the
capital’s first integrated hotel at 15th and Pennsylvania, a block
from the White House.
Obama’s ceremonial journey will end at the nation’s most famous
address — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. For decades, the windows offered a
view of slaves servicing the elegant homes on Lafayette Square. Today,
in that same spot, record crowds will gather — braving confounding
security, epic bathroom lines and biting cold — to watch Pennsylvania
Avenue dance another step forward.
BLACK IRAQIS RUN FOR OFFICE [VIDEO]
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) — Their faces and darker skins make them look
different. They are routinely called “slave” by the majority, whatever
their profession. But Iraq’s black population hopes that Barack
Obama’s rise to the White House will mark a turning point for
minorities not just in the United States, but also in their country.
Jalal Thiyab Thijeel, general secretary of the “Movement of Free
Iraqis,” followed every detail of Obama’s election campaign.
“Inspiring,” he calls it. Inspiring politically, and personally. Like
Obama, Thijeel has family roots in Africa.
“We told our people, Inshalla, God willing, Obama is going to win, and
if he wins, it will be a victory for all black people in the world,”
he recalls. “We’re going to make him a model to follow. Even our old
women were praying for him to win.”
When news broke that Obama had won the election, it was early in the
morning of November 5 in Basra — but Thijeel excitedly called a
fellow member of his political party.
It was a moment, he tells me as we talk on a street in Baghdad, that
he’ll never forget. “Now we, the dark-skinned people, feel even closer
to the American people because Obama is one of us.”
Thijeel’s organization estimates there are approximately 2 million
black Iraqis. The country’s total population is more than 28 million,
most of them ethnic Arabs. It’s impossible to verify Thijeel’s
estimate, since the government does not keep statistics on race, but
there is no denying there are many black Iraqis in the southern city
Their history goes back 1,000 years to the time when Africans were
brought as slaves to the south of Iraq to drain marshes and build
Many Iraqis still call blacks “abed,” an Arabic word that means
“slave.” Thijeel grimaces when he pronounces it. It’s demeaning, he
says, and he wants the government to forbid its use. Many white Iraqis
claim the word isn’t meant to offend, but Thijeel says they have no
idea how hurtful it is. “I never want my son to go through this,” he
He also wants his son — and his daughters — to have access to good
jobs, something that is not the case now, he says. In Basra, many
black Iraqis have menial jobs. Although no one can point to any
official discrimination, there are no black members of the Iraqi
The Movement of Free Iraqis was founded two years ago and on January
31 it will run the first slate of black candidates in Iraq’s modern
Thijeel hands me the party’s documents that spell out its demands.
Foremost is that the government recognize blacks as an official
minority in Iraq. This is key, because power in Iraq is apportioned
along ethnic, religious and even tribal lines. The party also wants an
apology for slavery, although it is not asking for financial
reparations. The movement also wants laws to combat racial
The party has found some nonblack political allies. Awad Al-Abdan of
the National Dialogue Front says, “There’s been social oppression for
a long time. We have a tribal-based society and, according to
traditions and customs, the black man is considered to have lower
Some white Iraqis say that founding a political party on racial lines
is divisive, especially when Iraqis of different communities need to
pull together. But Thijeel, quoting Barack Obama, says it’s time for
change. Although he’s speaking in Arabic, he uses the English word
“There’s a change in international politics,” he tells me. “Obama won,
and not that long ago, in his country, black people were marginalized,
so this event has shattered all barriers.”